[OT] Thieves winning cybersecurity war - NY Times
- New York Times, December 6, 2008
Thieves Winning Online War, Maybe Even in Your Computer
By JOHN MARKOFF
SAN FRANCISCO Internet security is broken, and nobody
seems to know quite how to fix it.
Despite the efforts of the computer security industry and a
half-decade struggle by Microsoft to protect its Windows
operating system, malicious software is spreading faster
than ever. The so-called malware surreptitiously takes over
a PC and then uses that computer to spread more malware to
other machines exponentially. Computer scientists and
security researchers acknowledge they cannot get ahead of
As more business and social life has moved onto the Web,
criminals thriving on an underground economy of credit card
thefts, bank fraud and other scams rob computer users of an
estimated $100 billion a year, according to a conservative
estimate by the Organization for Security and Cooperation
in Europe. A Russian company that sells fake antivirus
software that actually takes over a computer pays its
illicit distributors as much as $5 million a year.
With vast resources from stolen credit card and other
financial information, the cyberattackers are handily
winning a technology arms race.
"Right now the bad guys are improving more quickly than the
good guys," said Patrick Lincoln, director of the computer
science laboratory at SRI International, a science and
technology research group.
A well-financed computer underground has built an advantage
by working in countries that have global Internet
connections but authorities with little appetite for
prosecuting offenders who are bringing in significant
amounts of foreign currency. That was driven home in late
October when RSA FraudAction Research Lab, a security
consulting group based in Bedford, Mass., discovered a
cache of half a million credit card numbers and bank
account log-ins that had been stolen by a network of
so-called zombie computers remotely controlled by an online
In October, researchers at the Georgia Tech Information
Security Center reported that the percentage of online
computers worldwide infected by botnets networks of
programs connected via the Internet that send spam or
disrupt Internet-based services is likely to increase to
15 percent by the end of this year, from 10 percent in
2007. That suggests a staggering number of infected
computers, as many as 10 million, being used to distribute
spam and malware over the Internet each day, according to
research compiled by PandaLabs.
Security researchers concede that their efforts are largely
an exercise in a game of whack-a-mole because botnets that
distribute malware like worms, the programs that can move
from computer to computer, are still relatively invisible
to commercial antivirus software. A research report last
month by Stuart Staniford, chief scientist of FireEye, a
Silicon Valley computer security firm, indicated that in
tests of 36 commercial antivirus products, fewer than half
of the newest malicious software programs were identified.
There have been some recent successes, but they are
short-lived. On Nov. 11, the volume of spam, which
transports the malware, dropped by half around the globe
after an Internet service provider disconnected the McColo
Corporation, an American firm with Russian ties, from the
Internet. But the respite is not expected to last long as
cybercriminals regain control of their spam-generating
"Modern worms are stealthier and they are professionally
written," said Bruce Schneier, chief security technology
officer for British Telecom. "The criminals have gone
upmarket, and they're organized and international because
there is real money to be made."
The gangs keep improving their malware, and now programs
can be written to hunt for a specific type of information
stored on a personal computer. For example, some malware
uses the operating system to look for recent documents
created by a user, on the assumption they will be more
valuable. Some routinely watch for and then steal log-in
and password information, specifically consumer financial
The sophistication of the programs has in the last two
years begun to give them almost lifelike capabilities. For
example, malware programs now infect computers and then
routinely use their own antivirus capabilities to not only
disable antivirus software but also remove competing
malware programs. Recently, Microsoft antimalware
researchers disassembled an infecting program and were
stunned to discover that it was programmed to turn on the
Windows Update feature after it took over the user's
computer. The infection was ensuring that it was protected
from other criminal attackers.
And there is more of it. Microsoft has monitored a 43
percent jump in malware removed from Windows computers just
in the last half year.
The biggest problem may be that people cannot tell if their
computers are infected because the malware often masks its
presence from antivirus software. For now, Apple's
Macintosh computers are more or less exempt from the
attacks, but researchers expect Apple machines to become a
larger target as their market share grows.
The severity of the situation was driven home not long ago
for Ed Amaroso, AT&T's chief security official. "I was at
home with my mother's computer recently and I showed her it
was attacking China," he said. " `Can you just make it run
a little faster?' she asked, and I told her `Ma, we have to
reimage your hard disk.' "
Beyond the billions of dollars lost in theft of money and
data is another, deeper impact. Many Internet executives
fear that basic trust in what has become the foundation of
21st century commerce is rapidly eroding. "There's an
increasing trend to depend on the Internet for a wide range
of applications, many of them having to deal with financial
institutions," said Vinton G. Cerf, one of the original
designers of the Internet, who is now Google's "chief
"The more we depend on these types of systems, the more
vulnerable we become," he said.
The United States government has begun to recognize the
extent of the problem. In January, President Bush signed
National Security Presidential Directive 54, establishing a
national cybersecurity initiative. The plan, which may cost
more than $30 billion over seven years, is directed at
securing the federal government's own computers as well as
the systems that run the nation's critical infrastructure,
like oil and gas networks and electric power and water
That will do little, however, to help protect businesses
and consumers who use the hundreds of millions of
Internet-connected personal computers and cellphones, the
criminals' newest target.
Despite new technologies that are holding some attackers at
bay, several computer security experts said they were
worried that the economic downturn will make computer
security the first casualty of corporate spending cuts.
Security gets hit because it is hard to measure its
effectiveness, said Eugene Spafford, a computer scientist
at Purdue University.
He is pessimistic. "In many respects, we are probably worse
off than we were 20 years ago," he said, "because all of
the money has been devoted to patching the current problem
rather than investing in the redesign of our
The cyber-criminals appear to be at least as technically
advanced as the most sophisticated software companies. And
they are faster and more flexible. As software companies
have tightened the security of the basic operating systems
like Windows and Macintosh, attackers have moved on to Web
browsers and Internet-connected programs like Adobe Flash
and Apple QuickTime.
This has led to an era of so-called "drive-by infections,"
where users are induced to click on Web links that are
contained in e-mail messages. Cyber-criminals have raised
the ability to fool unsuspecting computer users into
clicking on intriguing messages to a high art.
Researchers note that the global cycle of distributing
security patches inevitably plays to the advantage of the
attacker, who can continually hunt for and exploit new
backdoors and weaknesses in systems. This year, computer
security firms have begun shifting from traditional
anti-virus program designs, which are regularly updated on
subscribers' personal computers, to Web-based services,
which can be updated even faster.
Security researchers at SRI International are now
collecting over 10,000 unique samples of malware daily from
around the global. "To me it feels like job security," said
Phillip Porras, an SRI program director and the computer
security expert who led the design of the company's
Bothunter program, available free at www.bothunter.net.
"This is always an arm race, as long as it gets into your
machine faster than the update to detect it, the bad guys
win," said Mr. Schneier.
- In a message dated 2008.12.07 19:38 -0500, John Rethorst wrote:
> New York Times, December 6, 2008John, thanks for posting that. It's of interest - should be of critical
interest - even for other-than-Windows users, because we all need to be
aware of the vulnerability of this medium and the costs of getting things wrong.
That in turn leads to thoughts of how we might reduce the exposure, and one
is constantly struck by the degree to which attacks are, as the article
says, borne by email and depend for their success on only a very small
percentage of users doing the click-on-this-link thing. But in the cost
calculus of attackers, that percentage of stupid users can be vanishingly
small, because the cost of reaching them is even smaller - which make me
shake my head in wonder why the Internet is not a fee-for-service structure,
with some non-zero cost (say, a penny/1K/recipient) for the transmission of
Yes, that could take a toll on legitimate mail operations, like mailing
lists such as this one. But there's no free lunch, and users might welcome
the chance to pay for list memberships out of monthly connection fees,
especially if it made the medium more secure. Thieves hack for profit; the
key to reducing the threat is to reduce the profit motive. It's amazing
that we still resist that proposition.